Year 1: Part 4
part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

By the middle of the school year, it's all about test scores for Principal Randy Shaver too. He's gathered a group of five teachers, including Jo Adams. They sit down around a large table in the staff workroom, snack machines and copiers buzzing behind them.

"We're going to have a little focus group," Shaver declares.

Narrowing of Curriculum
Over 70 percent of school districts are reducing time spent on subjects other than reading and math, according to research by the Center on Education Policy. Subject most affected: social studies. Subject least affected: physical education.

The benchmark results have come back. Not surprisingly, Jo Adams' students did not do well. They got 22 percent right this time. Better than 16 percent, but not nearly good enough. And benchmark scores school wide are low too. Shaver is worried. He says just 65 percent of students at Western are on track to pass their end of course tests. Five years ago, when No Child Left Behind was signed, test scores were higher. Shaver must do something. So he's proposing a change in the school schedule. Rather than taking eight classes a year, students would take six. It's a narrowing of the curriculum that would give students more time in classes that have state tests at the end.

One of the teachers confronts Shaver with a question about the schedule change.

"What would that do to our elective courses, like art and chorus and drama?" he asks.

Shaver answers quickly. "Bottom line is I don't know. We may not offer three levels of drama, but we'll still have a drama program. What I do know is that we have to look at where we're not performing, and that seems to be in the core courses."

The teacher nods his head. "We're test driven," he says. Shaver chimes in. "Yeah, we are, there's no doubt."

The other teachers nod too, and Shaver laughs, a nervous laugh, acknowledging reality. His job as a principal is to carry out the policies that come from above him. He likes what No Child Left Behind is trying to do. He thinks schools need to do more about the achievement gap. But he does wonder whether focusing so much on testing is really the right direction for education.

"We understand that in order to be a successful school, we have to meet the measures that are established for us, we have to meet those bars," he says. "And the way that we do that sometimes is not to teach the total curriculum. Instead, we teach the things that we know will be on the test. And we teach them in the manner that we know they'll be presented on the test. So yes, we are raising a generation of kids who are going to be excellent at taking tests. I hope they're going to learn what they need to learn along the way."

And what about students who are not good at taking tests?

He pauses. "Well, hopefully they become better at tests. And we try to help them do that because it is important that they perform well, not just for us but for them."

"Oh Romeo, Romeo, where are you Romeo?"

Jessica Giardullo notices something odd in her version of Romeo and Juliet.
Photo by Billy Barnes

By spring, Jessica Giardullo and her classmates are tackling Shakespeare. Jessica's reading Juliet, and she's into it. She loves reading, wants to be a writer. And school's going pretty well. Jessica's passing most of her tests. And teachers are saying she's smart, recommending honors classes, telling her she could get a college scholarship. Jessica's not quite sure what to make of it all.

"I don't know, I either started understanding it more, or I just started doing work," she says. "But when you start to take in stuff more easily, it feels really good. You can like feel yourself getting smarter. It's like when people say, 'Hey, good job,' and you can watch your grades go up and up. It like feels really good, you know. You're like, 'I'm getting better at this.'"

With her new self-confidence about school, especially English, Jessica is facing a different frustration. It's too easy. She's picked up on something funny about the version of Romeo and Juliet her class is reading. It seems really short. She's not sure the language is quite right.

She questions her teacher. Turns out, this is a "simple" version of the play. Jessica's annoyed. The teacher does her best to explain.

"It's longer in the book because the language is longer, but the events are the same. Does that make sense?" the teacher asks. "The problem is, the Old English, a lot of the words you guys aren't going to understand. And you'd probably really struggle with it. So, this way we can at least perform the play."

Jessica's eyes widen.

"That kind of sucks," she declares to the class. "It's like really short."

By the end of freshman year, Jessica is not only ready to be done with remedial work, she wants more. She's actually kind of excited about school now, and the idea of a bigger challenge in honors courses next year. And she's really looking forward to one class in particular: creative writing. Finally, she'll be able to do what she really loves, in school.

Continue to Year 1, Part 5

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